First Principle ‘product’ Thinking

Phantom limb is a state when you have one of your arms or legs amputated but you feel that it is still there. You try to move or perform something with it but certainly you can’t. Watch this cat video

Nearly 80% of the people whose limb has been amputated suffer from this sensation and it’s agonizing.

These individuals feel anxiety to a varying degree. However, some go on to suffer excruciating pain in their phantom limb.

To a doctor, this obviously posed a disturbing situation because how can you treat something that doesn’t exist at all.

So, in the past several decades, doctors tried various methods of treatment like vibration therapy, hypnosis, acupuncture etc with none achieving any decent success. Given the peculiarity of the case, the methods employed were complex and as a result expensive. So, even if they were to achieve any success and deployed commercially it is least likely that poorer patients of the world would have benefitted in any way.

A few years ago, a certain Dr. V Ramachandran invented this simple product called mirror box.

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Costing couple of dollars, it was just a simple box partitioned by a mirror. To use it, the patient inserted his healthy hand in one end of the box and put his amputated hand in the other. He then observed the movement of his healthy hand in the mirror.

The reflection in the mirror fooled his brain into believing that his affected hand is moving and this way his pain is relaxed. Though not 100% reliable, mirror box therapy proved helpful to a decent proportion of patients considerably more than the previous experiments.

First Principle Thinking

Let’s ignore the efficacy of mirror therapy and observe what Dr. Ram did.

Dr. Ram didn’t bother about how this syndrome is being currently treated. He took a fundamentally different approach. He looked at the problem in the way nobody did, ignored all the assumptions and built the solution from scratch that looked nothing like the existing solutions.

This is called First principle thinking. It is the reverse of how we generally think. (which is why the likes of Dr. Ram are outliers)

The way we generally think is that we reason by analogy. Quoting Elon Musk again from his interview with Kevin Rose

What is reasoning by analogy

Consider the meat problem? It is established that consumption of animal meat has a significant adverse impact on the climate. But mostly, there is an issue of ethical treatment of animals who, let’s admit, are slaughtered slow and dry to meet our taste and diet needs.

So, what do we do to avoid this problem? “Promote inclusion of vegan protein substitutes like Tofu, Soya in diet.”

Well, that didn’t work. So what do we do now? “Ban eating meat.”

Okay, that didn’t work either, now what? “Ban eating meat with tighter controls.“

And this goes on. That’s called reasoning by analogy. Wherein we are trying to find the solution by keeping the existing solution as the frame of reference. And then we iterate to find a relatively better solution.

Going back, what is First principle thinking

First principle thinking is when we break down the problem to its most fundamental truth beyond which it can be deduced no more.

We keep no assumption about how the problem is being solved currently. We simply start from scratch and then solve the problem.

So, what’s our problem? Animals are being killed. And people want to continue consuming meat.

In case of Phantom limb, what was the problem? Patients are feeling pain in their amputated limb. But they cannot move it. (Somebody like Dr. Ram would obviously break it down more fundamentally but let’s just excuse my lack of knowledge)

We know the result of first principle thinking in case of Dr. Ram. Let’s wow few people used it to solve the meat problem?

They started growing meat in laboratories. It’s called cultured meat which tastes as good as the real meat.

And just like that, all the vegan movements of the world have been disrupted. You don’t need them, at least not to the same degree that you do now.

Quoting Elon Musk again from the same interview

Closing thoughts

I first came across this phrase from a talk given by Rahul Ganjoo of Zomato in a event hosted by a company where I work. Responding to a question from the audience he said that “we are not huge fans of A/B testing. We typically run with first principle product thinking”. (It’s a good talk. You should watch.)

That’s really what we do in A/B testing. We want to improve conversion on the home page. So, we create a test version of the page which is just a slight variation of the current one and gauge the effectiveness.

If the result is statistically significant, we deploy it, else we stick to the current version. And that’s just about it. Iteration not a fresh innovation.

Absolutely, not making the injunction that A/B testing is bad but I guess you get the point. :)

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I want to be the kid who told the emperor that he is naked. Currently @webengage.

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